Cattle and Carnivores

In a remote part of India called Kutch, vegetarian herdsmen provide the key to survival for a broad array of meat eaters

  • Yavendradev V. Jhala
  • Apr 01, 2002

PRE-DAWN GLOW lights our path as I switch off the headlights of my four-wheel-drive Gypsy. Adrenaline levels soar among the members of my research team from the Wildlife Institute of India as we bounce along an old cattle trail. Our destination: a spot where I had set rubber-padded, foot-hold traps in an area of northwestern India called Kutch, where there have been reports of wolf activity.

The winter cold combined with the windchill of the open vehicle numbs my hands at the wheel as we speed along. Yet I dare not slow down, knowing that within an hour of sunrise, livestock herds--accompanied by herdsmen and their ferocious dogs--will swarm this empty landscape, putting at risk the life of any animal that may have been caught in the traps I had set.

I study carnivores, and for 12 years I have followed them here in an attempt to answer basic questions about their lives. During this time, I have confirmed that this arid region nearly half the size of Maine supports an unusual array of meat-eating animals: Indian wolves and striped hyenas primarily, but also jackals, rare caracals, desert cats and jungle cats, and even a relic population of leopards.

LIVING WITH ANIMALS: The nomadic Rabari people migrate into Kutch after seasonal monsoons, walking for miles each day. Camels carry their life's belongings. Their cattle, sheep and goats follow. The remote region of India is also home to many carnivores, including this wild wolf pup (left) held by the author.

This profusion of carnivores has survived even though most of the hunters' natural prey species have disappeared. That has led wildlife researchers such as myself to puzzle how these animals have managed to find sufficient food. What do so many carnivores eat? Do they compete with each other? How have they managed to survive? And how can they be protected?

The key is the human graziers, I've discovered. The large carnivores depend on the livestock of these people, many of whom are vegetarians, and most of whom are poor. Their religious beliefs and lifestyles are intricately interwoven with carnivore ecology.

Kutch ("turtle," in the Kutchi language) is a dome-shaped landmass cut off from mainland India by a swamp desert called Little Rann of Kutch, and from Pakistan by Great Rann of Kutch and the delta swamps of the river Indus. In this land of low rainfall, most people either herd livestock or are merchants.

Most herdsmen follow a nomadic lifestyle, moving with thousands of cattle, sheep, goats and camels in search of pasture. They keep large animals for the production of milk, ghee (clarified butter) and manure, or for use as draft animals--not for human consumption.

The region's main religions are Jainism and Hinduism (Islam is also practiced in Kutch). All Jains and the majority of Hindus are vegetarian, and both religions prohibit the slaughter of cattle and other livestock. Malnourished, old and dying cattle are fed and nursed in special cattle camps.

Soon after the first showers of the monsoon, the dusty, brown Kutch landscape turns velvet green, and a vast migration of livestock and their owners enter Kutch. Four to six months after the last rain, the large herds depart, leaving behind a wake of desolate, overgrazed landscape. The resident livestock barely eke out a living. Many die, and in drought years, livestock carcasses litter the landscape, providing a super-abundant food resource for the large carnivores of Kutch.

Our objective on this early morning is to trap the elusive wolves in order to attach specially designed collars incorporating radio transmitters. This will enable us to track the animals remotely to study their secretive behavior and ecology.

I gun the engine of the Gypsy as we approach the spot where the traps are set. When the mist clears, we can see that the bait is gone. Clear drag marks in the soft earth lead to a short clump of desert vegetation. As I approach the scrub with a gun loaded with an anesthetic dart, a gray shadow rises from the bushes with a low growl, but it is no wolf. I've captured a striped hyena.

Luckily the drag of the trap is caught in a deep-rooted bush. This allows me to maneuver around the hyena to shoot the dart accurately on its rump. Within 30 minutes, we fasten a radio collar, take blood samples for a disease-and-genetics study and record data on body measurements and weight.

The hyena is an adult lactating female. By following her radio signals, we will soon find her den. And for the next three years--the length of time the batteries in her radio collar will last--she will share the secrets of her life with us.

One night not long after, I watch from a canyon ridge through night-vision goggles as a shape emerges from a mosaic of limestone caverns. I can see the large ears and curious face of a young striped hyena inspecting the outside world. One by one, seven of the animals venture out of their holes, like ghosts, to haunt the arid landscape.

MEAT EATERS: The Indian wolf and striped hyena (left, feeding on a cattle carcass) are the most numerous in a guild of wild Kutch carnivores that also includes caracals, desert cats, jungle cats and leopards. They survive even though most of their natural prey species have disappeared.

Of the four species of hyenas, only the striped occurs in India. In contrast to the well-studied and publicized spotted hyena of Africa, little is known about the ecology, social organization and behavior of striped hyenas--even though they occur in northern Africa, Arabia, Iraq, Iran and into Afghanistan, Pakistan and much of India.

Adult striped hyenas weigh between 65 and 100 pounds. The sparse body coat is covered by characteristic black, vertical stripes, giving the animal its name. The striped hyena is adorned with long hair on the neck and along the spine, forming a mane. This hair and that on the bushy tail are erected when the hyena is excited--during fright and social interactions.

At 10:30 p.m. the collared hyena, having suckled her three cubs, begins a journey in search of food. From the direction of the radio beeps, I know she is heading for the village of Bara three miles away. Her destination is a haddakhodi, a dump yard for dead livestock.

Hyenas avoid direct contact and conflict with people by spending the daylight hours in deep dens and crevices. Since human activity in Kutch is primarily restricted to daylight hours, the night belongs to the hyenas. This totally nocturnal behavior makes them difficult to study.

CAPABLE CARNIVORE: With a small, power-packed body, the Indian wolf is aptly adapted to live in the arid and semiarid regions of India. Its smaller body size (at 40 to 55 pounds, less than half the size of a timber wolf) permits the animal to subsist for some duration on smaller foods such as rodents, hare, birds and even wild berries and insects. 

By following this particular female and other radio-collared hyenas, we have found that striped hyenas live in colonies comprised of 5 to 15 adults centered around related females. Each colony has a nursery den where cubs of several ages reside and are cared for by younger female baby-sitters. Male hyenas rarely assist in cub-rearing. Many range over large areas, following nomadic food resources.

I also continue to look for Indian wolves. After eight hectic days of checking spoor and other signs, I spot my first one in Kutch. As I align my binoculars, my tribal field assistant, Saale, points to another slightly smaller animal a short distance away. She is a female with full udders. What luck! That tells me there is a den with pups in the vicinity and I am looking at the alpha, or dominant, pair of a wolf pack.

With a small, power-packed body, this wolf subspecies is aptly adapted to live in the arid and semiarid regions of India. Its smaller body size (at 40 to 55 pounds, less than half the size of a timber wolf) permits the animal to subsist for some duration on smaller foods such as rodents, hare, birds and even wild berries and insects. Still, these wolves will easily take prey four times their body weight. A pack is capable of successfully hunting nilgai antelope and cattle bulls.

In the hot summer, wolves lose most of their coats, giving them a characteristically lanky, long-legged appearance. In winter, they resemble the red wolves of North America. Packs in Kutch are relatively small, ranging from two to eight animals.

During lactation, wolves need a lot of water and select their den sites within a mile or so from a water source. They have a tendency to scent-mark their denning area intensively with feces and urine. This makes it easier for us to search for the den of the lactating wolf we had seen. After two days of intensive looking, Saale is successful.

The den is excavated on the bank of an eroded gully, 65 feet from a running stream. But there are no fresh tracks or scats along the trail. Something is not right. The den entrance is stuffed with thorns and burned. The shepherds have beaten us in our search for the pups.

We check with the nearby settlements and are directed to a cluster of three huts. Soon we meet the proud wolf slayer--a boy of about 18. He explains that the wolves had attacked his goat corral at night. Out of the six goats his family owned, the wolves had killed two and carried one away.

Though wolves are legally protected in India, enforcing this law is extremely difficult. Most people living in and around wolf habitats are not even aware that killing wolves is a crime punishable with a two-year prison sentence. This is evident from the way the boy invites us to his hut and proudly narrates how he smoked out the pups. I am angry, but my feelings turn to sympathy. The six goats were all that this family owned. Their daily meals were dependent on the sale of the goats' milk. What was a boy his age expected to do?

I wonder if some pups may have survived since three is a relatively small litter size for a wolf. Wolves in Kutch rarely keep all their pups in the same den. After another 12 days of searching, we see the alpha female with two pups upstream in a thicket.

Luckily up until now, the war against wolves in Kutch has been limited to locating dens and killing pups, using dogs or clubs. And only a limited section of the local population has taken part. Adult wolves rarely succumb. Firearms are rare and even more rarely used against wolves. Now, however, this is changing. Some pastoralists have learned to use pesticides to poison wolf kills. This practice wipes out entire packs. Several nontarget species--including hyenas, jackals, feral dogs and vultures--are also killed at each poisoning episode.

In the recent past, wildlife depredations on crops and livestock were tolerated. An occasional goat and sheep killed by a wolf was looked upon as an occupational hazard. This old value system is fast being replaced by a more Western, utilitarian attitude toward nature, with tolerance levels continuously decreasing.

During periods when nomadic livestock herds are in the study area, there is a super abundance of food for the carnivores. Hyenas rarely need to travel far to get a full belly. Many carcasses are left unattended. During these times, malnourished and old goats and sheep also lag behind the main herds, easily falling prey to wolves. Predation on such animals rarely evokes a retaliatory response from the shepherds. The crunch for the carnivores comes when these nomadic herds leave.

Wolves in Kutch are primarily hunters, my studies show. They operate in packs, hunting small livestock and some Indian gazelle, wild boar and hare. Hyenas, on the other hand, subsist primarily on dead livestock. They perform an efficient function of sanitizing the ecosystem and recycling precious nutrients--like calcium and phosphorus--locked up in the carcasses.

Wolves gorge themselves with food when it is available. A single wolf can easily consume about 40 percent of its body weight in a single night, but in times of scarcity the same wolf can easily go without food for eight to ten days. The migration of nomadic livestock away from their range rarely affects stable packs.

With hyenas, in contrast, life changes during the crunch period when nomadic herds move away. Then the hyenas subsist on an alternate abundant source of food--village dogs. Feral dogs abound around villages. We have radio-tracked hyenas stalking the streets of towns in the darkness of the night, hunting dogs. Occasionally hyenas also eat goats and sheep, as well as Indian gazelles, hares, jackals and nilgai antelope calves. They also raid and feast on desert melon crops.

Caracals, jungle cats and desert cats are efficient predators, operating alone, hunting birds and mammals. Partridge, quail, peafowl and hare form the major diet of the caracal and jungle cat. Although the caracal has been reported to attack and kill gazelle and small livestock such as sheep and goats, these are rare events and do not evoke any serious retaliation by herdsmen.

Ecological and behavioral adaptations of the large carnivores permit them to partition the food resources efficiently. That, in turn, enables them to maintain high population densities. These adaptations are also conducive to age-old land-use practices. Retaliation by herdsmen is currently limited to individual events and animals.

Partly due to isolation and partly to lack of economic attraction, the rest of the world has largely bypassed Kutch, and the region has received a little less than its share of India's burgeoning population. Now that is changing, too. Old land-use patterns are being transformed and so is the region's value system. Industrialization, mining and intensive agriculture are consuming the vast pastoral landscape, and the tractor is replacing the bullock. Will the same fate befall carnivores here that it did in Europe and North America? In those parts of the world, organized efforts to wipe out predators, sometimes using poison, exterminated them from much of their habitat.

HUMAN CARE GIVERS: Both nomadic Rabari, including this man and boy, and more settled Muslim Jaats raise livestock. But intensive agriculture, industrialization and mining are transforming their pastoral landscape, altering old land-use patterns. Author Jhala hopes his carnivore studies will lead to new reserves that will protect both wildlife and human cultural traditions in Kutch.

As the pastoral way of life disappears and large herds of indigenous breeds of livestock become economically nonviable, the people of Kutch will risk losing their grazing lands, their culture and even their identity. As this happens, the nomads, wolves and hyenas will vanish.

There is an alternative to this fate, though. From the findings of our research, we will soon be in a position to identify critical needs and areas of importance to carnivores within the larger landscape of Kutch. If these specific areas, along with certain important pasturelands, are made into conservation units where only traditional land-use practices are permitted, then not only would carnivore biodiversity be preserved, but also cultures and traditions that have evolved over thousands of years.

I sense the possibilities one starry winter night as I gaze from the top of a small hillock. The moon has set an hour earlier. It is my last night in Kutch for this field season. In an urge beyond my control, I throw back my head, cup my hands around my mouth and howl. My voice reverberates in the distant canyon. A few seconds of absolute silence follow, and then the wolves respond--first a low, deep-throated howl, then another and another at a higher pitch. The pups join in the chorus with yips and yaps. A chill goes down my spine as I realize it is still possible to ensure that these howls continue to echo in the wilderness of Kutch for generations to come.

Yadvendradev V. Jhala is a native of Gujarat State of which Kutch is a county. He is a faculty member at the Wildlife Institute of India and a research associate of the Smithsonian Institution.

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